The Other Side of the Tiber

Wallis Wilde-Menozzi offers an insider's perspective on 30 years of life as a foreigner in Italy.

The Other Side of the Tiber, by Wallis Wilde-Menozzi, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 384 pp.

Standing in a police station in late '60s Rome, Wallis Wilde-Menozzi waited for a clerk to decide her fate. She was 26, American, and in need of a work permit. She’d traded tenure at an Oxford technical college for the uncertain life of a writer. Scanning her application, the clerk dictated a new statement for her. “I came to Rome because I was a writer and I needed the inspiration of ancestors, the classical world, the sound of feet on stones.” He stamped the approval, chiding, “You can’t say just one book. You need time.” 

The Other Side of the Tiber celebrates the spontaneity, bureaucratic complexity, and cultural abundance that is Italy today. Permesso, the Italian word for work permit, gave Mennozi what she was really after in 1968: permission to write. She never forgot the clerk’s clear instruction. Books. Plural. Now a published novelist, poet and translator, Menozzi is best known for her acclaimed memoir "Mother Tongue."  

This sequel, an insider’s reflections on 30 years in Italy, resists the clichés of split vision – ancient/modern; north/south; timeless/chaotic. Instead Menozzi focuses on how such opposites can nurture a life in search of transformation. Menozzi is an elegant writer who never falls into contemporary memoir’s culture of complaint. Her subject is Italy’s layered identity. But the memoir’s deeper story reveals how buried parts of herself surfaced. Over time, she discovered a deep capacity for commitment, not just to creative work, but also to a new marriage, motherhood, and a settled life in Parma, where she now lives.

The eye “used to the bluer light of the Midwest” from a Wisconsin childhood soon adapted to “the scorching raven black streets of Rome.” Menozzi turns that eye on a Mediterranean world, “clustered excess to be admired, picked, displayed, eaten, enjoyed.” The memoir is itself an open market. Written in short, self-contained sections with headings such as “Memory,” “Layers,” and “Hungry and Untrained Eyes,” it offers glimpses of the Pantheon’s light, paving stones, kiosks, volcanoes, Italian donuts, pink marble, walking shoes, the frescoed walls of empress Livia’s dining room, “depicting palms, cypresses, quince, pomegranates, doves, and laurel.” Together, these short sections mirror the working of memory itself, offering a slideshow of Italy across time, from the Etruscans to today’s Slow Food movement.

Italy possesses 60 percent of the world’s art. Many of the book’s strongest sections involve artists: Duccio’s Sienese Madonnas, Correggio’s frescoed domes, Caravaggio’s dirty-soled pilgrims. Menozzi’s own life is guided by two principles of Italian art: perspective and restoration. In Michelangelo she recognizes someone instinctively drawn to subjects “to express freedom and potential” so his work “thunders with the process of release.” She laments his being, “pressed by taskmaster rulers hungry and impatient for his talent to mirror their power.”

Nowhere is free will and choice more poignantly examined than in Menozzi’s sections on southern Italy and immigration. She takes readers from Pythagoras’ Metaponto to the blue-tent refugee camp of Manduria. In Puglia, thousands of Somali do seasonal migrant work, while others wait for years in legal limbo. Like her, immigrants from North Africa stranded at Lampedusa ask to be taken in by Italy’s emblem, the she-wolf nursing Rome’s two fabled founders, “capable of nurturing, even creatures foreign to her species.”

Italy’s “tangled and mysterious strata” of human quest and survival play out in Menozzi’s stories of her first years in Rome. The most haunting is a clear-eyed account of a scene of domestic violence she witnessed in a courtyard. In telling that woman’s story, Menozzi subtly reveals her own. While keeping details about her own crippling childhood and first marriage spare, she uses the wife-stabbing story to explore women’s powerlessness and a paradox in Italian law:  “Il condono is perhaps the most pragmatic and extensive of Italian solutions for certain kinds of wrongdoing. Wait long enough and the penalty will be reduced or eliminated,” Menozzi notes.

The Tiber, the river cutting through Rome, is Menozzi’s symbol of “memory’s capacity to reach over time and cast sharp, contrasting light.” In the city shaded by plane trees, she first saw that Italy “possesses extraordinary master keys that it offers to everyone, even without their asking.” "The Other Side of the Tiber" is itself a master key that unlocks Italy with its centuries of “connectedness and community.” They provided Menozzi with the “nourishment” she needed.  Yet the discipline, commitment, and authenticity she’d been seeking had been waiting within her all along.

Alexandra Johnson, the author of "The Hidden Writer," is working on a travel memoir about southern Italy, "The Saint’s Laundry."

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